Tuesday, July 19, 2011

FIFA Women's World Cup Recap

Now that we've had a couple of days to digest everything, let's revisit just exactly what we saw over the course of the World Cup.

Worst excuse for a loss: This one goes to the North Korean women, who claimed they lost their opener to the United States because their team was struck by lightning during a training match on June 8. But wait, this story gets better.

Worst excuse for a positive steroids test: Those same 5 players who were struck by lightning? Apparently they accidentally ingested steroids while taking traditional Chinese medicines to counter the effects of the lightning.

Worst call of the Tournament: I covered this one already. It's no contest.

Biggest similarity between the women's game and the men's game: The inability of the officials to get enough offside calls correct. Marta's second goal against the USA was setup by a pass to a player in an offside position. The best Japanese chance in the final (before the actual goals) was incorrectly determined to be offside. The officials did a much better job of maintaining control of the games (they also weren't typically challenged as much in this department as the mens officials were), but these terrible calls stand out across gender lines.

Biggest disappointment: Has to be the German side. Undefeated in group play, 7 goals scored in 3 games...and they fall 1-0 to Japan in the quarterfinals. Some of the sting is relieved by the fact that Japan went on to win the whole thing, but that doesn't mean Germany should have bowed out that meekly when the Cup was on their home soil.

Worst coaching decision of the tournament: England's soon-to-be ex-coach Hope Powell's decision to call her players cowards for failing to volunteer quickly enough to take penalties at the end of their quarterfinal match against France. Putting aside the merits of her claim (we'll get to that), what possible good can come from this public quote? Even if she is going to step down from coaching the national team and oversee player development instead, how does this do anything other than make your job reaching players harder?

Most ridiculous coaching strategy of the tournament: Calling for volunteers to take the penalty kicks at the end of the elimination games. Both England and Brazil did this, and both (unsurprisingly) lost their penalty shootouts. The players have just pushed themselves physically, mentally, and emotionally for 120 minutes, and as a coach, you're going to leave the entire responsibility of organizing your team for the penalty kicks in their hands? There's only one reason to do this: to be able to say afterwards that a loss isn't your fault, the players made the decision. These types of decisions are the reason a team has a coach. The players are already dealing with enough on their plates, a good coach should seek to unburden responsibility from the players whenever possible. If the coach doesn't have an idea of who should be taking these kicks, then they haven't done enough preparation to be ready for this situation, which is another colossal failure on his/her part.

As an aside, the United States was 180 degrees away from this reprehensible practice, though I still have major questions about how they handled the PKs in the final. After the Brazil match, we learned that the US goalkeeping coach is in charge of penalties, and had his list of who to take them ready: Boxx, Lloyd, Wambach, Rapinoe, and Cheney (Cheney was out of the Brazil match by the end so Kreiger was slotted 5th instead). At the end of the final, Rapinoe was unavailable, and the coaching staff plugged in Tobin Heath (who had all of less than 15 minutes under her belt in the game, and slotted her 3rd. Now I acknowldge that the US had a plan based on data, so I am reluctant to criticize the selection too much, but I will make these two points: 1) Heath was as cold as anyone, which puts her at a distinct disadvantage, and 2) your best finisher, player of the game, AND most confident player going into the shootout (Alex Morgan) wasn't in your top 5 kick takers.

Did the United States lose because they took Japan lightly? I've heard this theory, but I don't agree with it. When a team comes in overconfident, they tend to coast through the game, relying on superior ability or skill to win the game for them. The US cannot be accused of a poor work rate in that final match. They did a tremendous job choking off Japan's attempts at buildup through the midfield all game long. An overconfident team would have been scrambling and chasing the Japanese all over the field while Japan maintained possession of the ball. The United States denied Japan the possession game they wanted. Yes, for the USA the distribution in their own half was sloppy, but that was the case in every knockout-stage game they played. The back four and the two central midfielders (Boxx and Lloyd) gave away countless balls to the opposing team in their own half. The US dodged countless bullets thanks to sloppiness all tournament long, they simply didn't dodge enough of these bullets in the final.

So, what happened then? I believe the failure of the US to win the World Cup came down to 2 general points:

1) The US was overwhelmed by the chance to escape from the giant shadow of the 1999 squad. For the entire World Cup the US didn't have time to be compared with the golden girls of 1999. They were the last team of the 16 to qualify thanks to a shocking loss to Mexico in regional qualifying. Then they were unable to win their group, the first time a US team had ever lost a group stage game. Then came the Brazil heroics, and the US had carved out their own identity as the gritty, never-say-die ladies of 2011. Even against France, it was still them riding the wave from the quarterfinal match. But when it came time to play the final, all of a sudden the US was favored, and the conversations comparing them to the 1999 team were flying around. I think they finally got ahead of themselves a bit, and got overwhelmed by the moment. I believe this manifested itself in their poor finishing, which was part luck but also part the shots they were taking. Everyone was trying to be the hero (taking some terrible angle shots) instead of making the extra pass. Even Megan Rapinoe fell victim to this, and she spent the entire tournament looking to make the key pass to free up someone else to take the shot.

Interestingly, a common criticism of the US men's team is that they tend to look to make the extra pass when the proper decision is to put the ball on net.

2) So much was made of coach Pia Sundhage's determination to make the USA win with a possession game, after years and years of them outworking and letting their athleticism overwhelm the opposition. It is absolutely a necessary step to take if the US is to remain a top contender, and it's not a change that will happen smoothly overnight. However, I believe this team took it too far the other direction and tried to play possession even in their own end, to their detriment. Time after time I saw pass after pass from the back four, Boxx, and Lloyd go directly to the other team in their own half of the field. The sequence that led to the first Japanese goal started with a Rampone giveaway less than 30 yards from her own net. As I said before, the move to a more possession-based game is laudable and necessary...but with 10 minutes left in the final, you should be making safer plays than that.

Finally, was it a choke? Yes, and that's not meant to take it away from Japan. They earned the win, and out-destinied the USA, if you will. But consider:

- The criminal lack of finishing touch (and terrible shoot vs pass decisions) displayed by the USA. This game could easily have been 3-0 15 minutes into the match.

- How easily each of Japan's goals could have been prevented. On the first one, Rachel Buehler violates a cardinal rule of defending: Never EVER clear the ball across your goal unless you are putting it into the seats. All she had to do was toe-poke it over the end line for a corner kick. Future events notwithstanding, no one on the American team should have been afraid of a Japanese corner kick.

For the second goal, Buehler simply lost Sawa on the corner kick. All she has to do is stick with her and not let her get free on the front side. Sawa's only play was to the front post, as she wasn't going to outbody anyone for a header.

- The performance during the penalty kicks. The US finally stopped believing after Japan's second goal. The only one of the four penalty takers who had any sort of confidence was Wambach. Boxx shrunk from the moment and telegraphed her intentions. Lloyd shot the same way she shot all game: 20 yards over the net. And Heath simply wasn't ready to be the USA's last real hope to stay alive. Japan's keeper made 2 great plays, but if the same US team that beat Brazil had taken those penalties, she wouldn't have saved either one of those balls.

- The advantage in ability AND the perfection of their game plan: They did everything they wanted to do in that game (save competent finishing). Japan couldn't play their possession game, the US dominated play and the chances.

The United States women did a tremendous job in the tournament, they simply didn't put a full regulation or a full overtime together against Japan, and Japan seized the opportunity the USA gave them. It was a tremendous game, and a very exciting tournament, and a wonderful win for Japan. It also will haunt everyone on the US roster for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tim Donaghy works the FIFA Women's World Cup

Even by my own (nonexistant) standards, updates have been pretty sparse for quite awhile. Between my usual endeavours and our 5 month old superstar, time to blog has been pretty nonexistant.

But then something comes along like this and I just can't not comment on it. Watch the video below and see if you can spot the absurdity:

Yeah...this is soccer, you can't catch the ball when you're not the goalkeeper. Luckily, soccer is a refereed sport, so these types of shennanigans aren't allowed. Unfortunately, the officiating crew for this game was incompetent, so nothing was called. You can see the keeper kick the ball away with the Australian players yelling incredulously at the referee.

Luckily, Australia won the game 3-2, so no lasting damage was done, except (hopefully) to the officiating careers of everyone on this crew.